For many 20 year olds, coronavirus lockdowns have meant long hours of remote college classes or watching Netflix. For Ofelia Fernández, Latin America’s youngest lawmaker, it meant bringing a city legislature into her mom’s living room.
Fernández was elected to the legislature of Buenos Aires in October 2019, at the age of just 19. She was already an icon of Argentina’s so-called “green wave:” the abortion rights movement that has swept the country and the region in the last few years demanding an end to abortion bans that are in place in all but a few areas. In 2018, as Argentina’s congress debated a bill to legalize elective abortion, Fernández admonished a room full of lawmakers for not listening to her generation—and making unsafe, clandestine terminations more likely. “We’re the ones who have abortions, and now it’s up to you to give us the right to decide,” she said. “If you don’t, just know that you’re sending us to die in your war, without our permission.” Argentine media dubbed her “the voice of teenage girls.”
That 2018 bill was narrowly defeated in the senate. But Fernández says the period lit a spark among her generation to challenge establishment politicians. “The whole process was like an open-air civics lesson,” she says, describing thousands of mostly young women sitting on the streets of central Buenos Aires watching lawmakers debate their rights on big screens. For many of them, Fernández says, it was the first time they’d heard speeches by or seen the faces of their representatives—and they weren’t impressed. “We all thought, if this is the level of skill, training, experience in these chambers, then no one can tell us that we can’t occupy those places ourselves.”
The leftist Frente de Todos coalition invited her to be on their list for local elections, and while she doubted if it was “the best life choice” for a 19-year old, she accepted. She had been a student activist since age 12, and couldn’t resist the chance to be in the room where decisions are made. “I didn’t want to be responsible for changes not happening. For them to keep delaying the actions young people are calling for on the environment, on feminism.”
Public office—even at a local level—has confirmed Fernández’s place at the forefront of progressive Argentine politics, and made her a target for trolls online. She regularly shares misogynistic, graphic and threatening messages sent to her on social media and in June, 4,000 officials and cultural figures signed a statement condemning the abuse against her as political violence. “The truth is, it does upset me,” she says. “I have to remind myself that they’re doing this not only so that I resign, but also to put off any girls who see me and feel inspired to step up and get involved in student activism or unions or politics. So I have to resist.”
Fernández has spent most of her first year in the legislature working from her mom’s home in the west of Buenos Aires, after Argentina imposed strict quarantine measures–many of which are still in place–in March. Through legislative meetings and viral videos featuring her rapidly paced narration, she’s been trying to convince the chamber to approve proposals including expanded sex education, employment and housing protections for transgender people, gender bias training for city employees, and more. But she’ll likely need to wait for municipal elections to change the makeup of the right-wing dominated chamber to make real progress on her agenda, she says.
On a national level, though, a big win may be on the horizon. Alberto Fernández, the Argentine president who took office in December, also from Frente de Todos, has given his support to a new bill to legalize abortion—a first for a head of state in the country. The vote has been delayed because of the pandemic, and it will need to get more votes than it got in 2018 to succeed, but the young Fernández says her generation is feeling confident as ever. “We already consider this right to be ours, and we just need to get it recognized on paper. I know we can do it.”